No city’s Chinatown—not even our own—comes close to Valley Boulevard in the San Gabriel Valley for the scope of Chinese regional specialties. From the fusion fare of Hong Kong to the soul-warming dishes of snowbound Manchuria, from the succulent soup dumplings of Shanghai to the cumin-scented uighur cooking of the remote northwest, the range of cuisines on this strip are the next best thing to a chopstick-wielding romp through China itself.
Sugar Spice Café
The menu received a complete overhaul in November, and now the cozy restaurant serves what might be the best Shanghai soup dumplings in the city. Bite-size baos follow a 178-year-old family recipe and come with juicy pork and crab fillings. 227 W. Valley Blvd., Ste. 168A, San Gabriel, 626-308-3777.
J & J Restaurant
Along with terrific soup dumplings, this restaurant serves popular Shanghai-style dim sum, including the cloying eight-flavor rice and stir-fried rice cakes with jee-tsai, a leafy green. Slivers of eel are sautéed with yellow chives, and fried crab is piled over chow mein. 301 W. Valley Blvd., Ste. 109, San Gabriel, 626-308-9238.
Lunchtime crowds gather for this Hong Kong-style coffee shop’s faithful version of Hainan chicken rice, a deceptively simple plate of boiled chicken over jasmine rice with broth and three dipping sauces. 138 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, 626-308-9535.
The menu highlights dishes from the northeastern city of Harbin, including a casserole of lamb and pickled napa cabbage—the house specialty. A cilantro-laden pork dish is a version of sweet-and-sour pork Russians might recognize. 301 W. Valley Blvd., Ste. 111, San Gabriel, 626-284-2619.
Xiang Wei Lou
Mao Zedong’s native province of Hunan is famous for its use of superspicy chilies. This spot offers classic peasant dishes such as cassia-inflected braised pork (one of Chairman Mao’s favorites) and dried turnip with house-smoked ham. 227 W. Valley Blvd., Ste. 118A, San Gabriel, 626-289-2276.
This small noodle shop specializes in knife-cut noodles from the northern inland province of Shanxi. Order them in a clear beef or lamb soup. 9425 Valley Blvd., Rosemead, 626-442-8999.
The eclectic mix of pan-Chinese cuisines is said to have evolved from the military barracks of Chiang Kai-shek’s army after its retreat to Taiwan in 1949. The oil onion noodle with egg, based on a traditional Shanghainese dish, brims with strands of caramelized scallions. Tender oxtail, braised in soy and tomato, stars in a hearty noodle stew. 227 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, 626-281-1898.
Omar Xinjiang Halal Restaurant
Just off Valley Boulevard, this place focuses on Uighur cuisine from the northwestern province of Xinjiang. The dishes adhere to Islamic dietary laws and are seasoned with cumin and cloves. Among the many lamb preparations is the pilaf, available on weekends and eaten with your hands. 1718 N. New Ave., San Gabriel, 626-570-9778.
Five tips for navigating the San Gabriel Valley
1. Hit the ATM
Cash tends to be the preferred form of currency here.
2. Read Up
Research is key. Books like contributor Carl Chu’s Chinese Food Finder (Crossbridge Publishing) lists the region’s restaurants, dishes, and customs.
3. Map It
Valley Boulevard street numbers change with each city, which can be a driver’s nightmare. Consult a map and determine the cross street nearest to your destination.
4. Take Notes
Many of the menus aren’t in English, and the ones that are don’t translate everything. If Mandarin isn’t your forte, look up the Chinese words for dishes you want to try and write them down before you go.
5. Be Early
The big dim sum crowds show up at 11. Get there at 10 to score a table pronto.
Photographs by Alex Farnum